LONDON — It’s more than 70 years since Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt — the four most notorious British traitors of the Cold War — first met and plotted as undergraduates at Cambridge.
But the shame of that association still burns strongly at their alma mater, as the makers of “Cambridge Spies,” the upcoming BBC drama series about the quartet, discovered when they applied to shoot there.
Trinity College, where three of them were based, flatly refused permission, yet allowed the Sylvia Plath biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow to use its grounds just a couple of weeks later. Another college agreed to substitute for Trinity, but only on condition that it should not be publicly identified.
Such sensitivity reveals just how deeply what used to be called the British Establishment was wounded by the treachery of four of its most gilded sons, who spied for Moscow while working at MI6, the BBC, the Foreign Office and Buckingham Palace. Controversy over the $8 million, four-hour series, due for broadcast in May, is already bubbling. A couple of articles have attacked the BBC for treating the quartet as heroes.
That’s a charge director Tim Fywell (whose movie debut “I Capture the Castle” also opens in May) and his veteran producer Mark Shivas deny.
Script by Peter Moffatt explains the motivations of the four as rooted in youthful idealism, their fervent Communist beliefs forged out of anti-fascism in a time when appeasement was the political norm. It also reflected their professed loathing of the glaring class iniquities of pre-war Britain, although they themselves tended to find their politics in the bottom of a champagne glass.
But the drama, which starts with their meeting in Cambridge and ends with the defection of Burgess and Maclean to Moscow in 1951, also claims all four became increasingly tortured by the double life of deceit and betrayal to which they had irrevocably committed themselves in their early youth.
“Cambridge Spies” has assembled a movie-caliber cast of young Brit thesps — Toby Stephens, fresh from playing the Bond villain in “Die Another Day,” Sam West (“Iris”), Tom Hollander (“Gosford Park”) and Rupert Penry-Jones (“The Four Feathers”).
Production values are predictably lush, though slightly less so than they would have been if $1.3 million hadn’t been cut from the budget because tax breaks were removed from TV production last year.
Show will screen stateside on BBC America, which came on board as co-producer after HBO turned it down because the story had insufficient U.S. elements. This is despite the fact Maclean’s wife was American (Sharon Stone has been trying to make a movie of her story for several years) and he passed U.S. A-bomb secrets to the Soviets while working in the British embassy in Washington.
“Cambridge Spies” was launched to foreign buyers at the BBC Showcase in February, and has already been snapped up in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Holland, Norway, Finland and Cyprus.